2015 Year in Review: Dr. Kelli Knight, Assistant Director of Veterinary Services

It’s time to look back on 2015! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2015 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

When asked to look back on the past year at the Wildlife Center of Virginia and share my fondest memory, there was no question … I would write about Africa! It all started in July with a missed call from President Ed Clark. “Uh-oh” was my first thought. What did one of my students do or who was in trouble? It was with dread that I listened to the voicemail, but then my jaw dropped when the message said, “Do you want to go to Africa to teach a course at the FreeMe Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre?” Well, it’s a tough job but somebody has to do it … so heck, yes!

Being an inexperienced traveler, I was very excited to talk to Ed about the details and figured we had plenty of time to make travels plans and prepare for the class and lab. Come to find out, we were leaving in a mere month! Didn’t I need vaccines? Wasn’t it spring in Africa in September? What does one do for 17 hours on a plane? Would the jet-lag be terrible? I had so many questions!

At least I felt prepared to instruct the class because I had just returned from teaching the same course at the Ross College of Veterinary Medicine in St. Kitts. The Basic Wildlife Rehabilitation Course is an intense two days of non-stop teaching -- 12 hours of lecture and a three-hour lab resulting in certification by the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (IWRC). Typically instructors co-teach each class so I was dying to know who I’d be teaching with while in Africa. The answer was … no one. Yikes! Since this class was being supported by a grant, the budget was tight, so I was on my own. Although I appreciated the vote of confidence in my abilities, I spent the rest of the month was cramming 15 hours of class material into my brain to get ready for my upcoming solo performance.

I also found out we needed to bring all the supplies for the wet lab portion of the class with us. So I packed hundreds of syringes, needles, bandage material, feeding tubes, and handouts which ending up filling an entire extra suitcase. Wait … is it legal to bring sharp metal objects like hypodermic needles on a plane? I was praying an up-close-and-personal encounter with TSA or customs officers was not in my future.

When I’d gotten more vaccines than a toddler, packed the obligatory cargo pants that zip off to become shorts, and realized most everything in my suitcase was khaki, I figured I must be ready to go to Africa. I left my house to meet Ed when a text came through on my phone that our flight had been cancelled. There’s only one flight per day from ATL to JNB so this was going to push our travel plans back by 24 hours. Meaning we would arrive in Johannesburg just 12 hours before I’d have to teach my class. No pressure!

The next day was a whirlwind of the check-ins, lines, and lounges that is airport existence. We arrived in Atlanta and boarded the largest plane I’ve ever traveled on, and then sat on the run-way for hours while waiting out several thunderstorms. My apprehension about being trapped on the 2nd longest flight in the world for 17 plus hours was eased by some adult beverages and pure exhaustion. Fortunately, I was able get some sleep on the plane so I arrived in Africa feeling worn out but keyed up about teaching the next morning. I had to pinch myself; I was actually in Africa!

My first few days in Africa were dedicated to teaching the IWRC basic certification course to 45 staff members and volunteers from FreeMe Wildlife Center. Teaching others about my passion is extremely rewarding, especially to this group because they were excited to learn concepts and techniques which were completely new to some of them. The hands-on lab where students use cadavers to learn how to tube-feed, administer fluids, give injections, and bandage bird wings (as well as each other’s fingers) is especially fun. Luckily my medical supplies suitcase made it through customs with no hiccups -- phew! After morning lectures on day two, the students turned in their homework, and then it was time to take their final exam. Test anxiety was high but I knew this group had studied hard and would be successful. Class concluded with the time-honored African tradition of “sundowners” (an outdoor cocktail party at sunset) and a chance to finally relax and socialize now that the group was all smiles.

My adventure continued by spending the next week in the clinic at FreeMe. I was like a kid in a candy store, getting to work with species including Meerkats, Spotted Eagle-Owls, Mongoose, Secretarybirds, Black-shouldered Kites, and, my favorite -- two orphaned Black-backed jackal pups who were admitted while I was there. The pups were mildly dehydrated and thin but otherwise appeared healthy. I was able to put into practicum the fluid therapy lesson from my class. I helped the staff use their new knowledge and skills to calculate the dose and administer subcutaneous fluids to both jackals. Both pups perked up overnight, started eating on their own, and their hydration was much improved the next day. I was like a proud mom seeing my tutelage used to help these orphans and the reason that I love teaching came full circle.


Even more amazing than the incredible animals with which I had the opportunity to work were the people. I learned there are wonderful people across the world that give selflessly and dedicate their time to care about wildlife in their communities. I was also overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of strangers who became fast friends and showed me the sights, invited me to dinner, and brought me into their homes. So many people made my trip to Africa extraordinary and that is what I will always remember.

The mission of the Wildlife Center of Virginia is “to teach the world to care about and to care for wildlife and the environment”. This experience reinforced for me that the basic principles and standards of wildlife rehabilitation truly are universal and can be applied internationally to help wildlife of all species. Whether I’m teaching one of my students in Waynesboro or lecturing in Africa, I’m honored to have the opportunity to share my passion about wildlife rehabilitation with the world.

What’s my next adventure you might ask? In July 2016, IWRC is sending me halfway around the world to the country of Brunei to teach a five-day course to the staff and volunteers at a brand new wildlife rehabilitation center. I can’t wait to see what I’m going to learn!

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” -- Aristotle

--Dr. Kelli

Keep checking the Wildlife Center's blog for more year-end posts this week!